Wednesday, December 28, 2016

evangelicals, bonhoeffer and the age of trump...

NOTE: We head out to Montreal in the morning come blizzard or not. That means I will not be posting again here until the New Year. For the next four days, Di and I will have a chance to walk, talk, read, think and love together in anticipation of how we will live our lives of "odd" faith in the era of Trump. My prayers are with you all.

One of the questions that vexes ecumenical Christians (the once mainline but now side-lined Protestant congregations in the USA) since November 8, 2016 has been: how could Evangelical and even some Roman Catholic Christians - who read the same Scriptures as ourselves - allow themselves to vote for Donald Trump?  He is a shrewd marketing genius who has historically denigrated and opposed the ethics and morality of those who follow Jesus. Yet, overwhelmingly - 81% - white Evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump. Coupled with the 52% of white women who seemingly chose race over gender, a winning hand for the Trump camp in the Electoral College was realized. 

There is no contest that the Democrats lost  this election. Mrs. Clinton was not a great campaigner, she carried the baggage of nearly 25 years of right wing character assassination, there was media manipulation by Russia and a highly questionable act of political sabotage by the director of the FBI.  Robert Reich calls this a highly tainted election - but the numbers don't lie. From my perspective, what I am about to write is not sour grapes from someone who can't get over losing. No, the question that gnaws at me because it carries staggering implications is how could Mr. Trump win among those who celebrate the centrality of Scripture as the corner
stone of their spirituality? Jesus is unambiguous whether you are a liberal or conservative, Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox: whatsoever you do unto the least of these, my sisters and brothers, you do unto me. (Matthew 25) St. Paul is equally clear: If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,* but do not have love, I gain nothing... faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (I Corinthians 13)

A website I respect, Bill Moyers' collection of columns and commentary, recently posted a harsh and incomplete analysis entitled, "Media, Morality and the Neighbor's Cow" written by Neal Gabler. It is one attempt at addressing my opening question. Many of his observations ring true, especially the penetrating words about Gore Vidal's attack on the Republican Party of 1961. Gabler concludes, correctly in my view, that when the GOP started to sell its soul to Ayn Rand et al, a descent began away from true conservatism. Once it was essential for conservatives to preserve whatever was good in society and inhibit humankind's inclination towards selfishness. Incrementally, however, the GOP morphed into a movement that venerated the so-called objective outcomes of market place analysis. It didn't take place immediately, and clearly there were (and are) Republicans who challenged this transformation. But bottom line thinking has become a Republican idol and Gabler is on to something when he notes that Rand and her followers present "a great attraction for simple people who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who hate the ‘welfare state,’ who feel guilty at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts.” (see the article here: The core of Gabler's arguement is this:

The transformation and corruption of America’s moral values didn’t happen in the shadows. It happened in plain sight. The Republican Party has been the party of selfishness and the party of punishment for decades now, trashing the basic precepts not only of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but also of humanity generally.To identify what’s wrong with conservatism and Republicanism — and now with so much of America as we are about to enter the Trump era — you don’t need high-blown theories or deep sociological analysis or surveys. The answer is as simple as it is sad: There is no kindness in them.

Think back to the crude but effective manipulation of working class racism starting with Richard Nixon's southern strategy. It was no accident that Ronald Reagan announced his bid for election as the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi: his celebration of state's rights was a dog whistle advertisement that he was the champion of Southern white values. In 2016, Mr. Trump was not subtle or implicit in playing the race card. Or the Ayn Rand card. Or the "yellow peril" card. Or the anti-feminist, anti-immigrant card. He effectively articulated the angst and anger of this nation's shrinking but very real white working class who have been left behind by a multicultural society built upon transnational trade. 

Nevertheless, Mr. Gabler does not explain why religious conservatives abandoned their core beliefs and voted for the least ethical candidate in recent history. Paying lip service to opposing abortion is not enough for those raised on the conviction that we are saved by grace.There was no grace active when Jerry Falwell, Jr threw his support for Mr. Trump at Liberty University: it was all about controlling the Supreme Court into the 21st century. There was no grace in the house either when Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council endorsed of  Mr. Trump; it, too, was a naked grab for power. The goal of both Southern Evangelical leaders was all about energizing their base by using wedge issues like homosexuality, race and abortion to give Mr. Trump an electoral advantage. It worked earlier for George Bush the younger when Karl Rove brilliantly turned out voters to oppose marriage equality. The significant difference, of course, being that Mr. Bush, whatever else you may say about him, was authentically a "born again Christian believer." He was not pandering even if his campaign strategy was..

This cannot be affirmed with Mr. Trump. About the only faith claim he could honestly make is that he owns his mother's Bible. He doesn't read it. He has no use for confession - or sin - or regret - or community - or study - or discipleship. His appeal to Evangelicals was about winning and making certain that all the spoils went to the victor. Not only were older, white Evangelicals frightened by our multicultural society, they firmly believe a culture rests or falls on the sanctity of life - albeit narrowly defined as anti-abortion. They are pro-death penalty. They aggressively support military interventionism and advocate a strict adherence to "law and order." It was no accident that Mr. Trump was able to corral the good will and kind hearts of older, white Evangelical voters by using Richard Nixon's campaign slogan of 1968. And this, I suspect, is where we get a clue about the real reasons why good hearted, Bible-believing people of faith were energized to vote for a man who is the antithesis of Jesus.

I have been working at understanding both the context and wisdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In
the 1980s Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer's best friend and key interpreter, hit the nail on the head when he told the world:  in Bonhoeffer's Germany in the 1930s, religion had become essentially an "inward" matter. The practice of faith was fundamentally about how God's love touched and changed people personally.  This is at the core of Evangelical religion in the USA:, too; there is NO salvation without a personal relationship with Jesus as Savior. In the 1930s, German Christians honored this truth. Further, given both the privatized theology of their intellectuals and the public chaos of their society following WWI, Bethge saw the German Church reach out for leaders who promised "a well-regulated and restrictive peace with contemporary society." With fidelity defined by personal salvation that honored order more than  compassion or social justice, the stage was set to pay obeisance to Hitler and National Socialism. In the 80s Bethge wondered if.something
analogous was coming to pass in American Evangelicalism? In 2016, there is an ever greater hunger for authority, results and a return to the "good old days" - make America great again - even if that means turning a blind eye to the heart of Christ's gospel.

Bethge's warning to Europe and the US was clear: a penchant for order and nostalgia in the church could easily lure some into making peace with tyrants. It happened before and might "lead once more to a world with catastrophic results." My deepening reflection on the insights of Bonhoeffer's late writings point to why we must call out the churches of our day for forsaking issues of peace, justice and compassion in their quest for inner serenity. The imprisoned pastor of Germany also challenged the way a privatized religion ignores public brutality and evil. Bonhoeffer used to speak of Jesus as the man for others: he preached and confessed, not a personal Savior, but one who shows us what a God life looks like in the harsh world of economics, politics and social change..

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